As Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Continues, Radioactive Food Raises Concerns

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It’s worth stating at the outset: while more than 10,000 people have almost certainly died in the March 11 quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, not a single person has been killed in the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. As Abrahm Lustgarten reported in ProPublica yesterday, most experts believe that even in the worst-case scenario, the radiation from Fukushima is unlikely to be a threat beyond the immediate vicinity of the plant:

Even in the worst case, the crisis should not lead to the level of health and environmental destruction that followed the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the experts say. Unlike Chernobyl, the potential for an explosion large enough to carry contaminants high into the atmosphere and to far away areas appears remote.

That’s the good news—as bad as things seem in Fukushima, they would almost certainly have to get considerably worse before the facts on the ground match the rising fear level inside and outside of Japan. But that doesn’t mean the nuclear crisis is calming down—and the uncertainty is only going increase. Radiation levels at the number 3 reactor—considered the highest priority by Japanese officials—remain so high that workers can’t stay near the structure for very long, preventing them from evaluating the full extent of the damage to the systems there. Fire trucks are still being employed to cool down the reactor and the spent fuel rods, but it’s difficult to gauge how successful they’ve been—there are no temperature readings for the spent fuel pool, though firefighters recorded temperatures below 212 F outside the reactor. That at least raises hopes that the rods aren’t continuing to heat up, but without better data, there’s no way to be sure—and even if they’re slowly cooling, there’s still plenty of radiation left inside them.

Still, the Japanese government expressed some hope on Saturday that they may be close to getting the upper hand on the crisis, as chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano told reporters in a news conference:

As of now, we cannot say anything definite, but we think we have succeeded in putting a certain level of water in Unit 3 and we think that it is in a certain stable situation. We have been able to prevent the situation from worsening . . .but I believe we are reaching a big turning point.

Even as he said that, however, Edano revealed that the government had found higher than normal levels of radiation in milk and spinach at farms near the damaged nuclear plant. Inspectors found amounts of iodine-131 in tested milk that was five times higher than levels considered safe, and seven times higher levels in spinach, which also had slightly elevated amounts of cesium-137.

Edano told reporters that the levels of radioactivity in the tested food weren’t high enough to pose a threat to public health, and that the government would continue tests. But the possibility of contaminated food is worrying. Skin is capable of blocking many forms of radiation, but if contaminated food or liquids are consumed, they can bypass that protection and harm internal organs directly. Milk can be especially dangerous—most of the excess thyroid cancer deaths in the aftermath of Chernobyl were caused by the consumption of radioactive milk. Cows ate irradiated grass, and then passed along the radioactive iodine in their milk.

The radioactive milk and spinach is the first evidence that the Fukushima nuclear crisis could well have effects that last even after the plant itself is finally cooled down. The good news is that if the government can keep monitoring foods for radioactivity and pull any contaminated products out of the marketplace before they’re sold, they should be able to limit any major public health risks. The cancer toll at Chernobyl would have been much reduced if Soviet officials had acted to take locally-produced milk off store shelves. The Japanese government, which tends to zealously inspect its food supply, is unlikely to make the same mistake, though China and other countries have begun stepping up examinations of food imports from Japan.

For now, the focus remains on Fukushima, and the ongoing battle to restore coolant to the reactors and spent fuel pools. Workers from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) managed to connect a mile-long transmission line to reactor 2 on Saturday, with the hope of restoring power to the water pumps and controls. (Power has already been restored to reactor 5, one of the least damaged units.) Even if electricity flows again, however, there’s no guarantee that the quake and tsunami have left the system intact. “They’ll have to see if those pumps and controls still work,” says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In other words, get comfortable. This crisis isn’t concluding any time soon.